Case Involving Brain-Damaged Girl Weighs on Romney Campaign

On the day Mitt Romney announced the support of social conservatives, the Republican blogosphere buzzed with reports about how a state agency under the former Massachusetts governor tried to pull the plug on a brain-damaged girl who ultimately came out of a coma.

The report about Haleigh Poutre surfaced on The Shark Tank blog in a sign that conservatives – and especially social conservatives – aren't comfortable with the Republican presidential frontrunner.

Romney's campaign said the governor improved the state of care in Massachusetts as a result of Haleigh's case.

“Gov. Romney criticized the state's handling of the case, ordered an investigation and put in place safeguards to prevent it from happening again,” campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said in a written statement. “His actions speak for themselves.”

Haleigh's case has particular resonance in Florida, ground zero in the highly publicized end-of-life debate over Terri Schiavo in 2005 that captured the hearts of social conservatives.

In the Schiavo case, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fought, but failed, to keep her alive through legislation, the courts and even the consideration of a plan that, sources said at the time, involved state police seizing her from a nursing home before she could be euthanized.

In Haleigh's case, which unfolded just a few months after Schiavo, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services under Romney petitioned the courts to pull the 11-year-old girl off life support. DSS was granted custody of Haleigh, who was comatose after a vicious beating, allegedly at the hands of her legal guardians, her aunt and stepfather.

The agency had to fight all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court for a do-not-resuscitate order, while Romney said little.

After the order was granted, though, Haleigh started breathing on her on. She is alive today, but still recovering.

Romney's campaign, which held events Monday in Tallahassee and Sarasota, made social conservatism a topic of discussion by issuing a lengthy press release detailing his support among what's known as the pro-life movement.

Fight corporate influence by keeping independent media strong! Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution to Truthout.

Most social conservatives, though, appear to support Rick Perry, Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann. One leading evangelical leader, John Stemberger, said this summer that he was endorsing Perry because Romney had flip-flopped on abortion and gay rights.

“The issue is not that he is a Mormon,” Stemberger said. “The issue is that he wasn't Mormon enough.”

On Monday the Shark Tank blog noted Haleigh's case – which received almost no attention in the 2008 race and just one story in Politico this past September – could damage Romney's standing among many social conservatives, who are suspicious of him.

“Over the years Governor Romney has changed his position several times on the gay marriage and abortion issue – two of the most controversial and defining issues for conservatives,” wrote blogger Javier Manjarres, who also noted how Jeb Bush handled the Schiavo case.

Though the cases are similar, there are differences.

Schiavo's case was brought after her husband said his wife did not want to be in what's known as a “persistent vegetative state.” Her father and brother fought for her not to be taken off life support.

In Haleigh's case, she was severely abused. After her aunt was arrested in the case, she died in an apparent murder-suicide.

Shortly after gaining custody, the state agency began drafting its motion for a do-not-resuscitate court order based on the advice of the girl's two doctors. Both thought she should be removed from her ventilator, but they split over whether her feeding tube should be taken out as well.

Haleigh's other alleged abuser, stepfather Jason Strickland, petitioned to keep her alive but lost in court. That court fight, though, may have saved Haleigh's life because it delayed the pull-the-plug order.

Schiavo's family, which established the Florida-based Terri's Life & Hope Network, got involved in Haleigh's case in 2006 because it showed how the opinions of doctors can be wrong when it comes to do-not-resuscitate orders.

Bobby Schindler, Schiavo's brother, said he believed the state, under Romney, “acted improperly, by rushing ahead with the pull-the-plug order.

“There is a lot wrong with this case. There should be safety nets in place to prevent this from happening, but I'm not aware of any,” Schindler said. “What's particularly frightening about Haleigh's case is she recovered so quickly.”

Romney's campaign said he didn't just stand by.

“Gov. Romney was the one who ordered an immediate investigation of Haleigh's case,” a campaign statement said. “He appointed a panel to review the entire case history. Once the panel completed their investigation, Gov. Romney ordered implementation of all of their recommended changes for future cases.”

One of the authors of the legislation to keep Schiavo alive in 2005, state Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, is a former Christian Coalition leader, and said it was unfair to compare Schiavo's case with Haleigh's.

Baxley said he was “comfortable” with Romney and the candidate's decision to embrace the pro-life movement.

“He is a genuine convert to pro-life. He hasn't flip-flopped. He has converted,” Baxley said.

But Baxley acknowledged there's mistrust of Romney. Some social conservatives don't like the fact that Baxley is in his corner.

“I have people who are furious with me,” Baxley said. “The most important thing is his conversion is genuine.”

©2011 The Miami Herald
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.